This month I got my hands on Itty Bitty City. It’s an ‘8-in-1’ project kit designed to get kids interested in coding, maker projects and electronics using blocks that work with LEGO, but aren’t actually LEGO, (let’s call them ‘NotLEGO’) and Microduino’s mCookie boards.

An mCookie board is an electronics platform that is able to read an input (like a finger on a button) and turn it into an output (like flashing an LED). They’re kid-friendly versions of Arduino boards that magnetically click together, making projects easy to assemble without any soldering. Arduino boards are more popular in the US than they are in the UK, but you’ll probably have heard of the UK equivalent – Raspberry Pi, the credit-card sized PC designed to get kids into coding. Arduino boards are similar to Raspberry Pi, but they aren’t as fully featured. For example, they can’t really do anything without being connected to a PC and set up first, but once they’ve been programmed they can be incredibly useful in maker projects that require a bit of simple automation, like making lights flash or motors turn on. They’re also a gateway to get kids interested in coding and electronics.Using the Itty Bitty City kit you can make eight different NotLEGO projects that come to life with the addition of a dash of code. Amongst other things you can make a sound activated windmill, a remote controlled smart car and a light sensitive night light, and of course you can always make your own projects, once you’ve got your head around how it all works.

I thought this all sounded like the perfect way to get my 10 year old (who is obsessed with iPads and PCs), interested in coding, but upon seeing the box he immediately threw me a curve ball:

“Cool! Can we make a YouTube channel and review it on there, Daddy?”

“Er, yes?”, I said, not really sure what I was agreeing to. “I suppose so…”.

It quickly dawned on me that he was way more excited about becoming a YouTuber than he was about actually learning anything. But, hey, if it gets him interested in educational technology, then why not? (I thought).

I talked to my wife about whether we were ok with our son having a YouTube channel at age 10. We’ve decided it was fine since all the interactions he has with it would be controlled by us and we always monitor his computer usage.

We already had all the kit we needed to record and upload the project to YouTube, so we decided to try the windmill project first, as it looked the easiest. I was going to use my iPhone for filming and I already owned a tripod with an iPhone attachment, so the camera wouldn’t wobble about. I’ve also got an Mac with all the software I needed on it to edit the video, add a pumping soundtrack and get it online.

The instructions were pretty easy to follow. For the windmill project you plug an audio sensor and a motor into the Hub module. Next you connect the Core module to your PC and download the code from a supplied USB thumb drive, then you can test out what it’s supposed to do. In the windmill’s case you make a loud noise, like clapping your hands, and the audio sensor activates the motor, which turns the blades. Plugging the sensors into the Hub module and then fitting them into the NotLEGO construction is a bit tricky for a 10 year old to do on their own, but with a bit of help from a responsible adult, (or me, since there wasn’t one of those around), it was possible.

What followed on filming day was a bit of a steep learning curve, but we managed to convert the dining room into a makeshift video studio, film my oldest son talking to the camera while making the project with some help behind the scenes from my youngest, download the code from his PC to the Microduino board, make it all work, build the NotLEGO windmill and test it, edit the video footage on my Mac (thanks iMovie) – including the funny fails – and uploaded it to YouTube (thanks Canva for the logo), all in the space of a single Saturday afternoon. And all after taking the kids to swimming in the morning, too!

We went from having the idea one day to literally having it all online the next. The wonder of this tech miracle is lost on him completely, of course, he’s already thinking of all the other cool things he wants to do on his channel next – iPad games, more kids’ tech and even more outlandish stuff to review like Fidget Spinners. My wife is already scouting eBay for a better microphone, a proper video camera and studio lights, while doing his social media before going to bed… which leaves me wondering, what have we unleashed?

Check out the first episode of Jacobox TV…

Itty Bitty City is a great piece of kit that gets kids interested in technology. While there’s no real incentive for them to take the coding further, it at least gets them up and running and used to the idea of making things with electronics. My plan with this project was to turn my son into the next Bill Gates, but I think what I’ve actually done is create the next DanTDM!. I’ve already told him though, if this YouTube thing takes off, he’s buying us all a new house. Here’s hoping it does, because he’s clearly going to need a bigger studio.


Addendum:
Since I wrote this Jacob has already made a second episode of Jacobox TV – building the smart car in Itty Bitty City – this time featuring his brother ‘NathanMod’. See it here, and don’t forget to like and subscribe!

To find out more about Itty Bitty City and what Microduino do, watch this